When Lamar Hunt approached his friend Edward “Buzz” Kemble in 1959 with the idea of starting a football league, Hunt knew — far ahead of his time — what kind of business professional football would become.
The 28-year-old was born into Texas oil wealth, but he had a passion for sports and entertainment. When the NFL wouldn’t let Hunt start an expansion team in Dallas, he decided to establish his own league instead. It was a concept Kemble couldn’t wrap his head around at the time.
“I went, ‘Whaaaa? But we’ve already got one,’ ” Kemble said. “That’s just how far away, so above everybody, he was in his thinking. It was unbelievable. Next thing I know, he’s starting the Dallas Texans.”
In 1959, the NFL was becoming more prominent, with football trailing closely behind baseball as America’s favorite sport. There were 12 teams competing annually for the championship.
Hunt’s brain child, the eight-team American Football League, was born that year. It would prove to be the most significant competition the NFL had seen since its founding in 1920. Because the idea was so outlandish at the time, the group of AFL founders came to be known as the “Foolish Club,” but Hunt never let doubt get in the way of his goals.
The NFL chose largely to ignore and dismiss Hunt in the beginning. But before the Texans could play their first game in 1960, the NFL was quick to expand to Dallas with its own franchise, the Cowboys.
“The National Football League decided, ‘We need to bust this Lamar Hunt,’ ” said Kemble, a lawyer who begrudged the NFL’s move as an antitrust violation. “So there was a lot of bad feelings about that.”
The Texans were constantly competing with the Cowboys for audience and attendance, which led Hunt to search for a new home for his team. Kansas City Mayor H. Roe Bartle, whose nickname was “Chief,” made Hunt an offer; thus the Kansas City Chiefs were born in 1963.
“All that was secretive, and it came pocket to pocket,” Kemble said. “But he loved it, because he got something out of it, because he didn’t have to fight the Cowboys all the time.”
Hunt’s friends and family still swear fierce loyalty to the Chiefs, though most of them live in Dallas, Kemble said.
Lamar’s son Clark, who now owns the Chiefs, recalls his and his siblings’ games being more important in his father’s life than the professionals’. Lamar’s children grew up like other kids but with special access to the fields and team.
“I was a fan just like everybody else,” Clark said. “When they lost, it was painful. And when they won, it was a big celebration.”
Cutthroat competition between the leagues led to fierce standoffs for talent. Lamar, clever and calculating, would recruit players already on NFL teams, Kemble said.
“One would draft one guy, and the other would turn around and draft the same guy,” he said. “They were really fighting for it.”
In 1966, a deal was struck between Lamar and Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm in a secretive parking-garage meeting at Love Field. A merger of the NFL and AFL would end the nasty draft battles between the two leagues and culminate in a single title game each year.
“I have kiddingly called it the ‘Super Bowl,’ which obviously can be improved upon,” Lamar wrote in a 1966 letter to NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle.
Lamar, who died in 2006, attributed the name to his kids, but Clark gives his father all the credit. Lamar got the idea from a toy Clark and his siblings were playing with at the time — a super ball. That, and Lamar’s regular attendance at college games such as the Cotton Bowl.
“He blended the two together in his mind, and that’s how ‘Super Bowl’ came to be,” Clark said.
Rozelle favored the name “AFL-NFL Championship Game,” but “Super Bowl” stuck, and by Super Bowl III, it was official.
The AFL was absorbed in 1970 by the NFL, which is now one of the most profitable organizations in the country. Among Hunt’s other sporting achievements are bringing professional soccer and tennis to America. He helped established Major League Soccer’s Dallas Burn, which is now FC Dallas.
“Most other businessmen would have abandoned efforts that he was involved in, the challenges he took on, because they were just so difficult and they took so long,” Clark said “But his patience and his persistence always saw him through.”